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Sight, But No Vision: The Sin of the Spies (Parshas Shelach)

parsha sefer bamidbar Jun 17, 2020



It was a stormy night, and a battleship was on exercise at sea. The captain stood on the bridge, looking into the foggy night ahead of him. Suddenly, he heard the look-out shout from the observation post. “There’s a light on the starboard side!”

“Is it steady or moving?” the captain asked.

“It’s moving,” the lookout replied.

This meant that they were on a direct collision course with another ship. The captain quickly ran up and grabbed the ship radio. “We are on collision course!” he signaled to the other ship. “Change course 20 degrees immediately.”

The signal quickly came back, ”Advisable for you to change course.”

Infuriated, the captain immediately replied, I am a captain. Change your course NOW.”

“I am a seaman, second class. You had better change your course 20 degrees,” came the reply.

By now, the captain was outraged. ‘”I am a battleship. Change course or suffer the consequences!”

Back came the signal, “I am a lighthouse.”

The captain changed course.


As human beings, we have the remarkable ability to jump to conclusions, assuming that we know the truth of a situation when, in fact, we have completely misjudged it. One of the most powerful learning experiences a person can have is a paradigm shift- a shift in perspective that causes us to see something in a fundamentally different way.


The Sin of the Meraglim


In Parshas Shelach, Moshe sends the Meraglim (spies) to scout out the land of Eretz Yisrael. With the exception of Yehoshua and Kalev, the Meraglim returned with a negative report- attempting to dissuade the Jewish people away from entering Eretz Yisrael. While we often think of their account as malicious libel, this actually does not seem to be the case when the story is read on a surface level. As the spies scouted the land, they witnessed many giants burying their dead, and upon return, the spies reported this to the Jewish People. Chazal explain that the Meraglim violated the prohibition of lashon hara (evil speech). However, they did not speak about people, only a piece of land! Does lashon hara really apply to inanimate objects? Furthermore, the Meraglim spoke the truth. They saw people dying, and they passed on that information. Was it not their job to report what they saw?


There is an enigmatic Gemara (Sanhedrin 104b) which notes that although the verses in Megilas Eichah (Lamentations) run in alphabetical order, in most chapters the verse starting with the letter pehappears before the verse that starts with the letter ayin, counter to their alphabetical order. The Gemara explains that this reversal is due to the fact that the Meraglim put their mouth- “peh”- before their eye- “ayin”. What does this mean, and what is the connection between Eichah and the sin of the Meraglim?


Proper Sight


There are two levels of truth: The first is how things appear on the physical surface; the second is the meaning that lies behind that exterior. In the same sense, there are two levels of sight: the first is physical sight, which allows you to see the physical surface of the object; the second is spiritual sight, the mechanism of giving meaning and depth to that which you have seen. Improper sight is seeing only that which is on the surface, without sourcing it back to its root, without seeing that which truly lies behind it. When the surface no longer reflects a deeper truth, it becomes a shell of an object, lacking any internal meaning, like a body without a soul. For example, if you were to look at someone's face and see only flesh and bone, without recognizing that there's a consciousness, a living soul, behind that surface, that would be an egregious corruption of sight. Your physical sight may be correct, but the meaning you have given to your physical sight is far from the truth. Similarly, when you witness an event, you have the opportunity to discern the meaning that lies behind it. If, however, you do not ascertain the truth that lies beneath the surface level, you are likely to project your personal perception onto the situation, twisting its true meaning to align with your subjective reality.


The Meraglim: Corruption of Sight


The Meraglim's physical sight was fine; what they lacked was spiritual sight. They physically saw giants burying their dead. But they chose to interpretthis to mean that the “land consumes its inhabitants” (Bamidbar 13:32). In reality, as the Gemara (Sotah 35a) explains, this was a miracle that Hashem performed to help the Meraglim in their mission. Hashem killed off the leaders of the giants in each city so that the dwellers would be distracted with their funerals, ensuring that the Meraglim could travel through Eretz Yisrael undetected. The death of the giants was the external reality; the spies’ mistake lay in projecting faulty meaning onto it.


Similarly, the Meraglim reported to Klal Yisrael that when they came across the giants, "we were like grasshoppers in our eyes" (Bamidbar 13:33). They projected their fear and lack of faith onto the giants. In their own eyes, the giants viewed them as grasshoppers. They were no longer conveying an account of objective reality, rather, they were projecting their own spiritual and existential insecurities onto their experience. This was their two-fold mistake. The Meraglim not only misunderstood their experience, but they then reported this distortion back to Klal Yisrael. We can now begin to explain why this was a violation of lashon hara.[1]


The Power of Speech


As we've explained previously[2], speech embodies the power of connection. As human beings, we are naturally isolated and separate from one another. We are individual beings, all living in our own subjective world, our own inner universe. We will never be able to experience life through anyone else's perspective, only through our own inner consciousness. We have our own thoughts and feelings, things no one else can see. We face our own hardships and tribulations, ones that no one else truly understands. This results in several difficulties. If I am trapped in my own inner world, how can I connect with other people? How can I know what's going on in their heads? How can I share my inner life with them? How can I overcome this infinite barrier between myself and everyone else?


This is the gift of speech. Speech is the mechanism that enables us to connect with other people, to overcome the barrier between us. You begin with your inner thoughts and experience. You then take a deep breath and use your throat to project your words outwards. You then use your tongue, teeth, and lips to form the specific words which will encase your thoughts as you give them concrete form. You then throw your words out into the world around you in the form of vibrations. If another person is nearby, their ears can pick up these vibrations and translate them into sound. These sounds form words, the words, sentences. If they speak your language, these words will take on meaning as well. They must then keep track of all the different words and sentences, holding on to them, and bringing them back from memory, while they try to recreate a complete picture of everything you said. Amazingly, this person can now experience your inner world inside their own mind. They now contain a piece of you within themselves. The barrier between your worlds has been eroded.


Lashon Hara: Corruption of Speech


Once we understand the purpose of speech, we can begin to comprehend just how abhorrent lashon hara is. Lashon hara is taking the very tool of connection, speech, and using it to disconnect people from each other. When you speak negatively about someone, you create a wall between the subject of your negativity and the person you are speaking with. The very tool of connection has been corrupted to achieve its opposite goal.


The Meraglim


Through speech, the Meraglim disconnected Klal Yisrael from Eretz Yisrael. It therefore seems that the Meraglim’s sin of lashon hara was in creating a scission between Klal Yisrael and the land of Eretz Yisrael, an inanimate object. However, when taking into account the deep nature and role of Eretz Yisrael, this takes on great significance. Eretz Yisrael is the makom (place) where Hashem connects to the world and most intimately connects to Klal Yisrael. By using speech to disconnect Klal Yisrael from Eretz Yisrael, the Meraglim were effectively separating Klal Yisrael from Hashem. In a deep sense, this was the most nefarious form of lashon hara imaginable!


As the Ramban explains (Bireishis 2:9), everything that the Meraglim said was "true" in the physical sense, but they failed to see what lay beneath the surface. This itself is the epitome of lashon hara: taking the truthand distorting it in order to create harm. Lying is a separate problem, violating the prohibition of “midvar sheker tirchak” (Shemos 23:7). The evil of lashon hara is not a fabrication, but a corruptionof the truth. The Meraglim suffered from a spiritual disease of ayin rah (an evil eye). They had sight, but no vision; they saw, but were blind.


Peh Before Ayin


The Marahal (Netzach Yisrael 9) uses these principles to explain the above-mentioned enigmatic placement of the peh before the ayin in Megilas Eichah. Proper speech requires first connecting yourself to a deep root of truth and spiritual thought, and then using speech as the mechanism of revealing that truth into the world. This revelation of truth is performed through the use of concrete, finite words. When Moshe transmitted the Torah, he revealed the essence of spiritual truth in the form of concretized words[3]. The speech and ensuing words were a loyal reflection of the truth.


The letter ayin literally means “eye”. As we have developed before, the spiritual concept of seeing and sight reflects the concept of truth[4]. When you see something, you see it as it is, in a static state, lacking any movement. When you look at a picture, you grasp it instantaneously, all at once. There's no process of constructing or building the picture in your mind, everything is just there, all at once, without any effort. Your eye is also the organ that most loyally reflects who you are. If you are spiritually sensitive, you can peer into the depths of another person[5]and see who they truly are. The word “ayin” is also connected to the word ma'ayan, a wellspring, something whose surface reveals an endless depth beneath it. One can draw forth water- the source of life- by going into the depths of the wellspring. Ayin therefore reflects the concept of reaching that which is hidden, higher, and transcendent.[6]


The letter pehliterally means “mouth”. The reason the ayincomes before the pehin the Alef Beis is to portray the ideal order of spiritual speech. First, one must connect themselves to the ayin, to the transcendent truth. The goal of the “peh”, the mouth of speech, is to then take the “ayin”- the truth- and express it into this world through the medium of speech. Thus, speech is meant to be a loyal reflection of something deeper, of spiritual truth.


A corrupted “ayin” (eye) does not reflect anything deeper. It sees only the physical world, disconnected from anything spiritual and transcendent. A corrupted “peh” (mouth) is a mouth that speaks without reflecting a higher “ayin”- a higher truth. This is what it means for the peh to come before the ayin. In such a case, the mouth speaks without first connecting to anything deeper, unwilling to source itself back to its spiritual root. As a result, the “ayin” (eye) no longer reflects the spiritual truth. This corrupted eye sees only the surface, and projects itself onto this physical surface.[7] This was the sin of the Meraglim, a corrupted eye and corrupted speech. They were unable to see past the surface, unable to see the true depth that lay beneath the surface of Eretz Yisrael. While in truth, this was the place where Hashem most potently connects to this world, all they saw was a physical plot of land. As a result of their corrupted sight, their speech reflected nothing other than their own ego. Their speech was lashon hara, speech that disconnected Klal Yisrael from both Eretz Yisrael and Hashem Himself.


This is why it is specifically in Eichah that the peh comes before the ayin. Eichah laments our loss of the Beis Ha’Mikdash, our diminished connection with Hashem. In a deep sense, Eichah laments the success of what the Meraglim tried to accomplish, a disconnect between us and Hashem, and a disconnect between the Jewish People and Eretz Yisrael.


Tzitzis: The Correction of Sight


At the end Parshas Shelach, after the sin of the Meraglim, the Torah introduces us to the mitzvah of tzitzis. Why does the Torah introduce us to the mitzvah of tzitzis specifically at this point? Is there any connection between tzitzis and the sin of the Meraglim? To understand the connection between the two, we must first recall an important principle.


The Bent Path and the Straight Path


Imagine you are walking along a straight path. At any point along the path, if you turn around, you can see exactly where you came from. However, if the path suddenly takes a sharp turn, bending off its straight course, then if you turn around, you can no longer see the starting point of your journey. The same is true of the physical world in which we live. Originally, the physical world loyally and perfectly reflected its spiritual root. When you looked around, you saw and experienced Hashem, and knew that He created the world; it was like looking back down a straight path. However, after Adam sinned, the entire world fell. The world became a bent path, and it is no longer clear where we come from.[8]


The Secret of Tzitzis


This is the secret behind Tzitzis. The Meraglim bent the straight path, refusing to connect the physical world to Hashem, refusing to see past the physical surface. Tzitzis are only required on a cornered garment. It is only when the garment ends, and begins to bend, that we are obligated to attach tzitzis to the corners. The straight lines of the tzitzis straighten the bent path of the garment. Thus, the tzitzis represent our ability to source ourselves back to Hashem, even on a bent path. The different details of tzitzis beautifully reflect this idea.We wear ticheiles, strings dyed a beautiful ocean blue color,to trace ourselves back to sea, then to the sky, then to the kisei ha'kavod (Hashem’s throne), and ultimately to Hashem Himself. The gematria of tzitzis is 600, and when you add the eight strings and the five knots you get 613, corresponding to the 613 mitzvoswe use to connect ourselves to Hashem.[9]


The Potential of Sight


We all have our own unique paradigms: of ourselves, of the world around us, and of Hashem. We have the power of choice; we get to choose how we perceive reality and the meaning we give to our experiences. Many of us have sight, but only a few among us truly see. The goal of life is to embark on a genuine journey of shifting our paradigms, of aligning our spiritual sight with the true nature of reality. We will never achieve perfect spiritual sight, but we can get a little closer every day. The more we attach ourselves to the truth, the more our peh will become a genuine expression of our ayin. May we be inspired to continuously expand our horizons, revolutionize and reconstruct our set paradigms, and build deeper eyes through which we see the world. 


[1]While there are various explanations regarding the Meraglim’s motivation to deliver a negative report, this is not the focus of the present article. In brief, here are some of the opinions:

1- They wished to keep Moshe alive. (They knew that upon entering Eretz Yisrael, Moshe would die.)

2- They were genuinely scared that Hashem would not be able to overpower the giants.

3- Ego: They wished to maintain their elevated status. (The Meraglim were Nesi'im. They feared that upon entering Eretz Yisrael, they would lose their positions of honor).

4- They feared losing the constant miracles of the midbar. (They knew that upon entering Eretz Yisrael, Hashem would no longer miraculously intervene, as He did in the Midbar. The did not want to transition to a world of teva (the natural), losing the constant miracles such as the ananei ha’kavod, manna, and Miriam's wellspring.)

[2]See articles on Parshas Tazria and Metzora.

[3]See article on Parshas Beha’aloscha, section: “Moshe’s Speech Impediment”.

[4]See article on Parshas Vayigash, section: “The Spiritual Concepts of Seeing and Hearing”.

[5]Specifically their eyes.

[6]This is why learning Gemara b’iyunmeans learning Gemara deeply, sourcing the physical expression of many varied opinions back to a higher root and seeing how all the fragmented parts of the sugya connect to form a sophisticated and beautiful expression of a higher truth.

[7]For more on the concept of the letter ayin and its potential corruption, see article on Parshas Metzora, section “Nega: Corruption of Oneg”.

[8]See article on Parshas Mikeitz, section: “Adam Ha’Rishon”.

[9]Food for thought: Moshe’s straight mateh which turned into a bent snake, the mitzvah of mezuza (which lies benton the doorpost), and the copper snake on the straight mateh which overcame the plague in the midbar are all connected to this topic, but are beyond the scope of this article.


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